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Walters Cultural Arts Center showcases creativity and builds connections in downtown Hillsboro

The busy cultural hub celebrates its 20th anniversary with a day-long party this Saturday, March 16


The Glenn and Viola Walters Cultural Arts Center exterior view: ready for a party.
The Glenn and Viola Walters Cultural Arts Center: ready for a party.

The growing downtown church wanted to sell its beautiful but now too-cramped building. 

The growing city needed an arts center to pull residents and visitors to the city center. 

A wealthy, arts-loving local couple wanted to help. 

In the late 1990s, the three intentions aligned. Local nursery owner Glenn Walters and his wife, Viola, donated a million bucks. A foundation of pro-arts citizens raised $150,000, while some contractors contributed their labor and supplies pro bono.

After buying the former Trinity Lutheran Church in the last month of the last millennium, the City of Hillsboro managed a four-year, $3.5 million renovation.

On March 16, 2004, those efforts culminated in the opening of Hillsboro’s Glenn and Viola Walters Cultural Arts Center, a 15,500-square foot cultural hub that boasts a 200-seat performance/event space, a half-dozen classrooms, a gallery, kitchen, box office and landscaped grounds punctuated by a pair of terraces. Operated by city staff, bustling with arts classes, exhibition, performances and more, the Walters is now the keystone of the city’s Cultural Arts District.


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OREGON CULTURAL HUBS: An Occasional Series

On Saturday, March 16, Hillsboro celebrates its arts center’s 20th anniversary with a day-long fiesta featuring performances, arts demonstrations and other activities, dance lessons, a community salsa dance, and more.

It’s worth celebrating, because the Walters is far more than an art gallery and concert hall. 

“It’s the cultural heartbeat” of Oregon’s fourth-largest city, says Nancy Nye, the city’s Senior Manager of Arts, Culture & Events. “We’ve learned over the period of Covid how valuable the arts are to our mental health and wellness. [The Walters has] gone from being a sacred space that served a community and their spiritual needs to be in community, and now it’s serving people in a different way — gathering with others in celebration, or seeing a show, or learning a new skill or practicing art.” 


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Historical photo of what would become the Walters Center, under construction.
Historical photo of what would become the Walters Center, under construction.

Showcase & Studio

The monthly Walters exhibitions, often including artist talks, highlight Hillsboro’s First Tuesday Art Walks. According to Walters interim manager Melissa Moore, most of the artists showing work in the gallery hail from Hillsboro or greater Washington County. Sometimes the exhibited art extends beyond the main gallery to also hang along the walls in the basement studio area.

Along with visual artists, the Walters annually showcases about 20 local, regional and even national performers, in a grant-funded, family-oriented Saturday matinee series and an evening series. They perform in the Walters’ cozy concert hall, surrounded by red stone walls and proscenium arch, under a vaulted arched wood ceiling, illuminated during the day by sunlight streaming through high stained-glass windows. The center also offers paid opportunities for emerging solo performers to play in the lobby during Art Walk openings. 

“Our philosophy is to curate a series that will represent a variety of styles that appeal to different age groups, some to young adults, some specifically family or kids, some to older adults,” Moore explains. “We want to make sure our series are serving the diversity of our community.”

That’s included special events such as an Ethiopian cultural festival, bilingual and Spanish language shows, Día de los Muertos celebrations, a Korean American music group with outreach to the local Korean community, and just in the past few weeks, an African American storyteller recounting tales from Africa, and a local South Indian dancer in a solo performance. Nye says the center tries to keep ticket prices affordable to make the shows accessible to diverse communities.

“It’s a gathering space where we can break down barriers to participation in the arts, and encourage folks that may not regularly attend theatrical productions or museum exhibitions or take art classes to see it as their space,” she says. 

It seems to be working, and bringing attendees back to the Walters for more. One of the most popular events is Salsa Night, which includes a one-hour dance lesson from teachers at nearby Lines Dance Academy, followed by two hours of salsa dancing with a live local band.

“Between 60 percent and 80 percent of the recent participants in Salsa Night had never been to the Walters before,” Moore notes.  


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Tripping the light fantastic: Salsa Night at the Walters.

The Walters also hosts a panoply of other events beyond its regularly scheduled series, including rentals for weddings, quinceañeras and other private celebrations, sometimes more than one at a time. 

The center has also partnered with other public agencies. It joined forces with the Washington County Office of Aging, Disability and Veterans Services to create a Memory Café in which facilitators used artwork on exhibit in the Gallery to encourage storytelling by participants experiencing dementia or memory loss. Madeline Birmingham and other musicians helped them create an original group song based on the art they saw. 

“In one session of the Memory Café, a participant who was largely nonverbal was inspired by a large piece of work that reminded them of their childhood,” Nye recalls. “Their sister was so moved to hear them talk about childhood memories that the next day, she came back and bought the artwork,” a dress created by Orquidia Violete with many recycled objects attached.

Arts Education 

The center doesn’t just exhibit artwork and performances  — it also fosters them through about 300 classes per year and a basement open ceramics studio open to current and former students.

“I think of it as a space for lifelong learning,” Nye says, with youth programs for toddlers through middle school and teens (including day classes for home-schooled students), and more for parents and other adults. Some run weekly, others in just a few sessions for time-strapped participants.  Subjects range from standbys like ceramics, painting and drawing to theater, sound baths, Dungeons & Dragons for beginners, needle felting, metal leaf photography, paper quilling, journaling, life collage, and more.

Birmingham, a multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter who has a solo career and plays in the local band Crimson & Clover, has been teaching ukulele at the Walters since 2021. “It’s a fun instrument and easy to learn,” she points out, and when she suggested the city reduce the barrier to entry even more, Moore ordered ukuleles for students to borrow so they wouldn’t have to buy their own. 

“What’s really great is that they are affordable,” Birmingham, who also teaches at nearby Mir Music, says. “Private lessons cost a lot more and many people in our community can’t afford private instruction. The classes offer a way for the community to experience something that shouldn’t be out of reach but often is: learning music. We need art. We need music. And at age 11, you are on the cusp of really needing the arms of it around you.”


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The five-week beginner class proved so popular that she added classes for adults and an intermediate level course. The students also asked if they could all learn a song together and perform it at the end of term recital. According to questionnaires, around half the students hadn’t been to the Walters before. 

Young students enjoying a painting class at the Walters.

Affordability was a big reason Swetha Mettala Gilla enrolled her daughter Swara, now 8 years old, in Walters classes. So was the wide range of classes; in the past three years, Swara has taken painting, watercoloring, ballet, clay, Birmingham’s ukulele class, theater and Indian dance classes. And so was location: The Walters is a short stroll from Hillsboro Transit Center, so the family (this year including Swara’s younger sister) can ride their bikes and scooter to the Max stop a few blocks from their house and be in the classroom in a few minutes. (Several of Swara’s teachers also take the Max to class.)

Swetha appreciates the positive effect of arts exposure on her children. “Many kids who are shy at first open up,” she says. “Initially they might have stage fright, but after the class you can see lots of improvement in their behavior, like how they can talk in front of an audience on stage. They can think creatively.” 

After nine months of Walters painting classes, Swara frequently sketches at home now, and is developing preferences for colors and patterns. She’s never been bored, Swetha says, and after her third child (who arrives soon) is old enough, she expects eventually to be bringing her to the Walters as well.

Nye says the Hillsboro community’s suggestions have generated ideas and inspiration, including actual classes and other projects. The center’s program staff “is not just in their ivory art tower, making programs,” she insists. “They’re listening to the community, responding to what desires they’re hearing and delivering on those learnings.” 

Broad Impact

That kind of community enjoyment and engagement should be enough to justify the Walters’ annual $1.4 million budget, which includes operations, instructors, programming, performances, artist grants ($617,000 since 2008), exhibitions, supplies and more, but doesn’t cover building maintenance or overhead. After all, it fulfills citizens’ demands for a downtown arts center in response to Hillsboro’s 2020 Vision and Action Plan, conceived in the late 1990s. (Both the mayor and Trinity Lutheran’s pastor served on the plan committee. Read more about the Walters’ history here.) But the center packs an ongoing economic impact, too. 

“We know from [studies] that most people don’t just go to an art event,” Moore says. “They make it into an evening. They may go to a restaurant, buy dinner and drinks at one of the cafes and restaurants, go shopping at the boutiques on Main Street, buy CDs or paintings from artists. All those artists live in our community, and every dollar they’re earning, they’re spending in our community. And it’s not just businesses benefiting. Walters revenues help pay living wages for artists.” 


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A recent study of the impact of the arts in Washington County revealed that each time they go out, art event attendees spend an average of $29.49 outside the cost of admission on food, transportation, and other expenses, a good portion of it at the Walters, Nye says. 

“The Walters plays a vital role in economic development,” Ajoy Navin Chakrapani, the past chair of the Hillsboro Arts & Culture Council, told Hillsboro A&E, the city’s official arts magazine. “Come for an event and stay for the restaurants. It’s a win/win for everybody.”

The Glenn and Viola Walters Cultural Arts Center, viewed from the south.

With so many activities in motion, the old church often seems more like a cultural hubbub than a temple of art.

“When I’m in the building,” Nye says, “I love hearing the sound of little voices, kids taking classes downstairs, while upstairs there’s a performance or a community meeting with volunteers or arts council members. There’s always a lot going on.”

The Walters’ most valuable product may be less in the art it fosters, or the economic activity it generates, and more in the community it cultivates. “Folks that participate are meeting someone next to them they haven’t met before,” says Moore. “They’re going to a class, being a little vulnerable, learning new skills, making new friends. They’re coming every week to work on their own projects, to talk to each other, to build relationships. It’s hard for people to connect sometimes. The Walters has created a place where people can come together and be creative together.”

In that way, the Walters’ current incarnation reflects its origins. Originally assembled in 1949 from hand-quarried red rock carried by congregation volunteers from its Camas, Washington birthplace in more than 150 trips, the building now harbors a community similarly built class by class, show by show, artwork by artwork. 

“The thought of the entire community doing the labor, stone by stone, to create a space where they can celebrate and comfort each other is a beautiful thing,” Moore says. “That’s what we’re still doing here. Each time someone comes into our space, they’re part of building a community here.”


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The Walters 20th Anniversary Celebration runs from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Walters Cultural Arts Center, 527 E. Main Street, Hillsboro. The free, family-friendly event features artist demos, dance lessons, music and dance performances, artisan vendors, hands-on art activities, food carts, cake and other refreshments, and ends with a Salsa Dance from 6 to 8 p.m. with music from DJ Son Latino. More information and schedule here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.


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